A last-minute trip to drop my wife off at her internship in October 2013 led to the brightest idea I’ve had so far as an entreprener. Here’s how it went.
Me: Why on earth would a psychologist practice in this area? Its such a pain to get here!
Her: Exactly why. “People” don’t want “people” to know that they are seeing a psychologist. They feel safer coming here, instead of a nice, popular location.
Me: But what if they meet someone inside the clinic?
Her: They may, but then they are both there for the same thing. So I guess it evens out.
Me: That sucks, why are you doing this?
Her: It’s great, I’m learning a lot.
Me: No, I mean, why are you doing this when it’s discomforting and inconvenient for the people you guys are helping? Why not create an online platform that’s anonymous and easy? Where nobody sees nobody.
Her: That would be great. But I don’t want to do business.
Me: I do. Actually, maybe I will.
And this idea stayed with me for a year. I thought about it so many times. We discussed it over and over, but guess what? I did nothing about it. I just let it sit out there in some hidden corner of my mind. After all, when did I ever have dearth of ideas?
But this one was different.
It didn’t leave. It kept coming back, stronger. Sometimes taking me back to my childhood, making me wonder if I would have turned out any differently if I had help through the not-so-great times. Would it have eased peer pressure or the pain of not making it to IIT? Could it have helped save the first relationship away from home? Or the struggle and loneliness that followed it? Perhaps helped with the grief of losing a father-like figure?
I still don’t know if it would have. But I felt the need to do this.
I started reading about counseling and I found it so fascinating that, had it been a few years earlier, I would have studied psychology and not engineering. Oh well. There was still a way to do this.
I finally talked about it to two of my closest friends. One of them loved it. The other one said it wasn’t bad—perhaps because he had heard many ideas from me earlier. The one who loved it, said I’ll help you with this. We started with meeting well-known psychologists to get their thoughts on the model I was proposing—an instant and anonymous platform for people to connect with professional counselors over chat and phone.
Here’s what we got:
“Good idea, but counseling needs to be face to face. Non verbal cues are important.”
“You can’t help people over phone and chat. You can only create awareness and motivate them to see a counselor.”
“Maybe helpful for basic stuff. Not for anything significant.”
“How will you handle disorders?”
It was great food for thought. Through the contours of what we couldn’t do, what we could became clearer. A few RTI applications and legal frameworks later, Dial My Angel was incorporated.
Meetings with experienced psychologists convinced me that we had to start with people who could connect with this relatively new concept.
So we wanted to:
- Build a team of people who were new to counseling and, hence, not biased.
- Institute a counseling process that would work with our model and deliver relief to those in need.
We landed at a campus that was open to a rookie with no experience in counseling, no background in psychology who wanted to recruit for a venture that was yet to go live. And on an overnight notice, I put together our recruitment presentation, established a recruitment process and set off to hire.
It was so good to be back on campus, to see ambitious young minds with dreams about making a mark, and we found our first few team members, Liza and Feba. They believed in me and the venture. Liza is also the only therapist I’ve had the fortune of seeing. Soon after Sonia, Neha and Khushboo joined us.
I remain grateful to them for the leap of faith then, and for many more things to come. Soon after, we had a rock of a Team Lead Anam, and a leader disguised as a counselor, Shivani join. Blessed to have each one of them. Some had to leave, most of them stayed. The beauty—aside from all their strengths is—they love BetterLYF as much, if not more, as me.
After eight months of rigorous training under wraps and tons of mock cases, we felt ready for the real ones. We went live on World Mental Health Day, 10 October 2016. Coincidentally, It happens to be my birthday, an unforgettable one at that.
When Reality Gazed at Naivety
Several months before launch, on a road trip with friends to Tahoe, I told a very close friend, “What I’m most worried about is, how would we handle the call volume?” He was generous enough to not ridicule me, and said, go ahead and build it, we can figure the operational challenges later.
On day 1, we had NO calls. NO chats. NO one bothered that we had started existing.
And why would they? We never cared to tell them. We thought we just need to let a few people know, and wait for it to go viral. After all, word of mouth is the easiest, cheapest and best form of marketing. We had professional counselors ready to help people with areas like parenting, fear, confidence, anxiety, depression, peer pressure, relationships, work stress and whatever else you can imagine for, that’s an offer no one would refuse. Instead, no one took.
A drink with a friend’s father going over his entrepreneurial journey gave me the comfort and inspiration I desperately needed on our launch day.
We didn’t realize yet that anonymity did little to address the stigma of talking about mental well being.
“Get well soon,” “You need to seek professional help.” “I highly recommend Dr. X.”—These sentiments only belong to the physical health world, not the mental. Empathy for dealing with sickness that is so common, was largely missing in mental health space. No one would RECOMMEND us.
We then reached out to the corporate world, considering WHO reports saying 1 in every 4 professionals experience stress that they don’t know how to cope with.
Only a few organizations welcomed the idea of spreading awareness and launching structured employee assistance programs. To our surprise, despite acknowledging stress and work-life balance struggles, many of them felt that they didn’t want to dig up the problems because then they’d be “expected” to solve them. “We don’t want to be labeled as a ‘Depressed Organization,’” was their thinking.
We do believe that happier individuals make productive and stable professionals but, as I said, things take time.
Counseling Is For Crazies?
When many people think of counseling, they think crazy. So we had to dispel that myth. We wanted to convey that counseling is not for the unfortunate few, but for everyone.
It’s not just for matters beyond my control, it’s also for small things that bother us. For matters that can’t always be shared with friends or family. After all, we as a culture are fairly judgemental.
We wanted to normalize counseling. So, we did our first video with a comedian. It was none other than Amit Tandon, who also happens to be family. He particularly wanted to talk about peer pressure and social media:
The day that video was released was by far the best day for Dial My Angel, we had traffic from 30-plus countries congratulating us on the cause and how this was very helpful. I know how each one of us was excited beyond words and took a big leap of faith. We all worked around the clock that day. I didn’t sleep that night. It was surreal.
During that same month, we had our first professionally shot video about who needs counseling. It was our happiest month to date—sharp contrast from Day 1.
What’s In a Name?
When you are truly madly deeply in love with something or someone, you miss out on their most obvious, visible-to-the-naked-eye but not yours, imperfections. We called ourselves Dial My Angel. Our first website had a very happy, carefree (distracting) image, a lot of information (clutter) and multiple (confusing) calls-to-action. And we just couldn’t see anything wrong with any of them.
We had a few iterations, but nothing helped us figure what was wrong.
With such a scintillating start, what follows can only be better, and so we did get better.
I now believe that when you want something badly, you are blessed with people who will help you get there. A mentor from Silicon Valley suggested that the name Dial My Angel was cheeky, but healthcare—particularly mental health—is a serious business. Change the name, he said. He said it with such certainty, and from a wealth of experience that I finally did.
He wasn’t the first one. All those spam callers who had their own ideas of “Angel” tried telling us hundreds of times. But as I said, when you are in love…
BetterLYF.com was thus born.
Another close friend from Google helped clean up our home page. Outcomes changed significantly. Small things, big difference.
We connected with Yourstory, Rediff and Entrepreneur, and talked about what we believed in. To our surprise, they featured us.
Burning a Hole
Startups suck a lot of capital, and this one was no different. To add to our problems, we were too shy to ask clients to pay. So while the payment gateways were still being setup, people who committed to paying through PayTM, Bank Transfers, etc. transferred nothing but hope.
We paid our dues of ignorance to Google, PR, Facebook and Offline campaigning. Along the way, we have come to understand it a little better. Hiring someone to do this didn’t work out too well. Good talent was a tad too expensive and most times didn’t want to bet on a bootstrapped start up. So I thought of reaching out to venture capitalists of the world—and I spoke to a lot of them. They were quite insightful and polite.
“We love what you’re building. Please keep building and let’s touch base later.”
“I don’t see how this would make money. We’ve seen a few ventures, they couldn’t sustain beyond free.”
“Do you see this becoming a billion dollar business?”
“Its not a scalable model.”
“Once you hit X Revenue/Y Transactions a day, we can take a look”
It was discouraging at first. I would challenge their feedback in my mind, but instead I tried to understand why they said what they said. I could see it make sense. Passion alone doesn’t build companies. Yes, it’s a key ingredient, but not everything. We all sat down to see how we could change the fate of BetterLYF, and we focused on the basics.
Higher counselor utilization and client retention is what we spent all of our time on. Since word of mouth wasn’t going to work as we hoped, we felt that people may not mind sharing articles and videos they connect with, so we build hundreds of them, and it really helped. We removed the mental block of “Instant.” Can you believe, for a year and a half we were stuck with it? We offered the option to schedule appointments, and it was welcomed by the clients.
Similarly, we never felt that clients would pay for chat. Counterintuitively, they loved chat. It helped them open up in a safe, unknown space. Some gradually move to call or video; others don’t. We used to anonymize counselors before, given that we had a lot of spam callers and stalkers. We didn’t realize we were sacrificing credibility with real clients. So we got real.
My mentor also advised me to NOT spend time raising money and to fix the real challenges. He wondered why the repeat usage was not high enough?
It’s not that we didn’t ask this question to ourselves, its just that we couldn’t figure the answer. Our mentor helped us figure out problem. The clients wanted an immediate fix which wasn’t possible. It’s like putting a band-aid on a deep wound. So we changed our approach and started psycho-educating clients. Again, small change, big difference.
A year later we welcomed Vrinda, Nandita, Sukriti, Ashmita, Shivanee, Aashima, Harshali, Shreya, our inhouse expert and trainer Yukti and our best ever intern Yuktika. They helped us take counseling quality, counselor availability and client experience to a new level.
Too Much to Handle
BetterLYF was not the only startup on my plate. We had three more during this time. We were blessed with two sons and in our other business, we were building a start-up in farm mechanization.
So my wife took two, and so did I. And it’s been a joyful ride—bumpy and stressful at time, but beautiful nonetheless. There were times when from parenting lessons informed the startups; and other times that our business guided our parenting efforts. Patience for one, nurturing with persistence was another.
Me and my wife often talked about challenges, celebrated small achievements, discussed counseling approaches and what not. At times, I would have a conversation with my dad and brother on how hard it was to get it off the ground and all these conversations would instill hope and energy. Their belief added wings.
As we grew our international presence, we started operating around the clock—and so did I.
There were days when I barely slept and couldn’t recall if a conversation had happened or was imagined. There were better days when I couldn’t tell difference between dreams and reality.
There were times I was emotionally unavailable, even to those closest to me—my mom, my wife, a couple of very close friends going through a rough patch. I couldn’t offer empathy, understanding or anything else to them. I had no bandwidth. It’s ironic: You are trying to deliver happiness for many you don’t know and you are nothing but a silent spectator to those who mean the world to you. (I did apologize to every single one of them later.)
One incident that has remained with me is when I came back from work and was on the phone continuously. My 2-year-old son was jumping with excitement from seeing me. I could reciprocate only some of it. I got off the call and we were playing with cars. He was sitting at one end, me on the other. Cars shuttling between us. The call hadn’t quite resolved the issue, so now I was on whatsapp. It was a disgruntled client, the kind you can’t postpone.
I was still sending cars his way but he figured it was mechanical. So he got up. He came to me. And he said, “Dad, please talk to me.” Few words, enough said.
I made a lot more effort to not let work mingle with kids time. I succeed sometimes.
Back to the Grind
As we moved along we realized that, while counseling is for everyone, not everyone is comfortable talking it out. So we had to have an interactive, software-driven solution for those in need. That’s how Wellness Programs were born. Shivani and Shailendra led it.
We poured our learning from thousands of cases into programs across the nine most common concerns, such as break ups, marriage, confidence, anxiety, work-life balance, peer pressure, anxiety, depression.
Lots of hard work and ongoing iterations, but we had a lot of people subscribe without any marketing. We love it, maybe soon others will too.
The beauty of our team has been that we are all so passionate about the cause that we didn’t shirk from any detail. We have no content writers—yet we have amazing articles. No video production—yet the team taught itself and came up with videos that I myself was surprised with.
We discovered poets, writers, actors, video editors in our counselors.
Two years and many rebirths later, I believe we started as a bunch of rookies wanting to make a difference, just as we are now. And I think we made a difference to over one million people who reached out to BetterLYF from 195 countries and to 2,00,000 of people who decided to have a conversation with us. We will soon be coming out with new and exciting ways of reaching and impacting many more lives.
In honor of our second birthday, I’m truly grateful to everyone who’s helped us get better everyday. Our team, our supportive families, our friends and most importantly the ones who keep us going, our clients.
To a more meaningful tomorrow.